I am in Salt Lake City, Utah for the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) conference. One of the things that drew me out here was an announcement that Malcolm Gladwell would be speaking at the conference’s opening ceremony.
I was not disappointed.
I have read (or read most of) his books, The Tipping Point and Blink. I found their subject matter engaging and approachable. Gladwell’s writing is effective in presenting sophisticated ideas and relationships in a casual conversational tone that potentially challenges readers without insulting them. My criticism of his books has been that at times it seems the “conversation” goes too long which lessens the impact of his conclusions.
He introduced a new theory he called the “Time Price of Art” (at least I think that’s what he called it). It is the correlation between the age of an artist and the monetary value/ critical acclamation of his work. For example, Picasso achieved his most valued pieces in his 20s where Cezanne did not achieve his most valued pieces until his 60s. Gladwell went on to the Eagles in comparison to Fleetwood Mac, and Orson Welles in comparison to Alfred Hitchcock. He asserted that the former saw success much earlier than the latter.
Though he did not come out and say so, he hinted that the latter is the more effective approach when it came to education. He said we were seeking classrooms of Picassos where we should be cultivating Cezannes. The former representing a single and immediate “genius.” The latter representing persistence and hard work.
A study conducted by a Michigan professor found most US students did not finish the exhaustive survey that accompanies the TIMSS report while most Asian students did. Gladwell attributed this to an essential difference in attitude among the two groups of students.
It is not aptitude but attitude that holds US students back. Gladwell proposed that US students see math learning as something magical or unique; either you are born with it or you’re not. He proposed that Asian students see math as a series of problems that must be overcome. I think of the story of the Little Engine Who Could. Despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles, the Little Engine chugged on and on and eventually succeeded.
It’s reminiscent of the Aesop’s fable about the fox and the grapes, where the fox does not want the grapes any longer because they are too far out of reach. As Gladwell put it: Because it’s hard to do.
While he was unable to offer any practical suggestions for changing current attitudes about how we as a nation think about learning, he made a convincing argument for the change. When asked what he would suggest for change, he said he didn’t know enough about education to offer any valid suggestions but that perhaps a paradigm shift was needed regarding how students learn.
Gladwell’s new book is due out in November.